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For the GOP, Embarrassment Has Been a Choice
Recovery begins with choosing to end it.
One of my favorite stand-up comedians, Sebastian Maniscalco, bases a lot of his humor off his old-school, traditional upbringing. His parents were Italian immigrants, and he was raised with a keen sense of image, perception, and shame that plays a big role in his jokes.
As an observational comic, Maniscalco likes to talk about his amazement at other people’s outlandish (but seemingly unself-aware) behavior, often asking rhetorical questions that he’s named some of his comedy specials after: “What's Wrong with People?”, “Why Would You Do That?” and “Aren't You Embarrassed?”
I’ve been thinking about Maniscalco and his shtick a lot lately, mostly while reading commentary on the current state of the GOP and conservative movement. Having just suffered its third consecutive disappointing election-cycle (topped off by another lost U.S. Senate seat in Georgia this week), one would think the party and Republican voters must feel exhausted, defeated, angry, and perhaps above all else… embarrassed.
That’s certainly what The Dispatch’s Nick Catoggio is experiencing, and has been for some time. In a recent column, interestingly enough titled “Aren't You Embarrassed?”, he explains how increasingly humiliated he feels to describe himself as a conservative.
It’s not because Catoggio has lost faith in the conservative principles he still ascribes to, nor is it due to the Republican party’s long string of political defeats. It’s because of the connotations of the term “conservative,” after six and a half years of the self-defeating MAGA absurdities and culture-war buffoonery that keeps setting up the GOP for these electoral beatings.
It bears repeating (and I know some of you are beyond sick of me doing it) that the party’s losing streak isn’t of the normal, historically-expected variety. Between 2016 and 2020, the GOP experienced its most painful electoral defeats in almost 70 years. And the 2022 elections only added to the disaster, with Herschel Walker’s loss making this year’s midterms the first in 88 years in which the majority-party successfully defended every one of its occupied Senate seats.
But let’s get back to the causes of all this, which despite the insistence of numerous right-wing media hacks and other MAGA clowns, have nothing to do with corrupt election-systems or Mitch McConnell dropping the ball. Just looking at the numbers in Walker’s home state make that crystal clear. Every other statewide Republican candidate in Georgia won their races (by at least five points!), and McConnell’s PAC spent almost $18 million trying to get Walker elected.
The problem is Donald Trump, his unconditionally loyal supporters, and the profound embarrassment their partnership still creates for the Republican party. It’s not only the ridiculous candidates (like Walker) that Trump elevates to primary wins (only to be defeated in otherwise winnable general-election contests). It’s also the day-to-day baggage of Trumpism, hallmarked by a steady flow of high-profile debacles, and the inclination of the rest of the tribe to try and rationalize them.
At the time of Catoggio’s writing, the latest example was Trump sitting down to dinner with a couple of well known antisemites. A few days later, Trumped called for the “termination” of parts of the U.S. Constitution to put him back in the White House — an act of restitution he believes he’s owed following a confirming report that Twitter, for two days back in 2020, suppressed the sharing of the Hunter Biden laptop story.
Despite stuff like this, and despite Donald Trump’s previous attempts to overturn U.S. democracy (that ultimately led to a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol), tens of millions of self-described conservatives continue to not only support Trump (as he runs for president for a third time), but double and triple down on the cultural asininity his political influence has enabled.
Catoggio offers a few colorful examples:
It’s an irreligious Trump holding up a Bible after pushing protesters out of Lafayette Park. It’s hair dye running down Rudy Giuliani’s face while conniving to overturn a national election. It’s Mike Lindell punctuating endless rants about voting machines to hawk pillows. It’s Sean Spicer bellowing that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history despite photographic proof to the contrary. It’s Steve Bannon in four layered collared shirts casually revealing Trump’s “Stop the Steal” plot in advance. It’s Kyle Rittenhouse walking out to virtual confetti and fireworks at a Turning Point USA event. It’s Kash Patel pushing conspiracy theories about the 2020 outcome in a children’s book. It’s grandmas and grandpas turning out for Trump rallies in “Q” tie-dye. It’s cop-punching goons carrying “Thin Blue Line” flags outside the Capitol on January 6. It’s anti-vaxxers dosing themselves with deworming medicine as a folk cure for COVID.
For many observers, what Catoggio describes is not only today’s Republican Party, but also modern American conservatism. And most people, understandably, want nothing to do with it.
As someone who’s loudly rejected the purported allure of Trumpism from the very beginning (not just its defiling of conservatism, but the moral and intellectual sacrifices it requires), even I’m embarrassed by it.
And if someone like me (who left the party six years ago in protest, and has by no means been complacent with the direction it’s taken) is embarrassed by it, why aren’t the people who’ve enabled and defended this circus over that same amount of time?
Aren’t you embarrassed?
Don’t you realize there’s a much better path forward — electorally, legislatively, and culturally — if you reject this crap?
Trump isn’t worth defending, especially not in the year 2022 — at least two years after everyone should have known better. But as National Review’s Charles Cooke wrote in a recent piece, the defenses just won’t end, not even when the former president openly calls for parts of the U.S. Constitution to be stripped out:
On Monday, [Trump will] say that “people with red hair ought to be drowned in butter.” On Tuesday, normal people will say, “that really doesn’t sound like a good idea,” which, because our politics is stupid, will prompt Trump’s fans to say, “actually, what America needs — and what it’s always needed — is for us to drown people with red hair in butter.” On Wednesday, Trump will say that he “actually never said that we ought to drown people with red hair in butter,” but merely “suggested that butter would have red hair if it drowned, which it must, if America is to be great again” — and, at this signal, the people who’d defended him on Tuesday will pretend that this is what they’d understood him to mean all along, and then insist that the real villains of the story are the people who heard him say “people with red hair ought to be drowned in butter.” On Thursday, Trump will say the original thing again, in slightly different words.
“Are you not tired of this crap?” Cooke asks.
At this stage, literally nothing is being achieved by it — except, of course, to drive independents and mainstream Republicans from the coalition. No laws are changed. No judges are appointed. No arguments are won. No thorny topics are broached. America doesn’t improve. Conservatism doesn’t improve. The GOP doesn’t improve. Everything just gets dumber and more cultish.
He’s right on all accounts.
Now, the good news is that a growing number of Republicans are finally showing some interest in wanting to move on from the Trump era. It’s been evident in recent polling and split-ticket voting, and it’s been supported by a fair amount of anecdotal evidence (including some subtly changing sentiments within the right-wing media). The shift hasn’t been strong enough to suggest that Trump will have a particularly hard time capturing the party’s 2024 presidential nomination, but it’s at least something.
What it needs to be is more than that. I have a hard time believing that anyone in their right mind truly enjoys defending the indefensible. Even for those who’ve made it part of their professional brand (and thus a source of revenue), it can’t be a fun thing that compels one to look in the mirror and like what they see.
What creates hope is that such embarrassment is a choice, not a cross anyone must bear in the interest of winning (that ship’s been sailing since 2016) or democratic preservation (which doesn’t quite gel with trying to overturn an election or calls to strip down the U.S. Constitution).
The easiest direction is up. And as the people of Georgia demonstrated last month, general-election voters are more than willing to reward Republicans of right mind, who manage to separate themselves from the embarrassment that has plagued the party.
So, what do you all say? Is it time to give shame a shot again?